Issue 6: Winter 2010


I recently wrote of Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) that 'few other films have attempted such extreme outright stylisation, and fewer still have succeeded as well'. It turns out, however, that I was wrong: the mise-en-scène of Karel Zeman's 1958 film Vynález zkázy (aka The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, aka A Deadly Invention) must stand alongside that of Wiene's as one of the great visual and stylistic triumphs of the cinematic medium. However, although the films share a love of stylisation, it's important to note that they deviate strongly in the purpose behind their design: where Caligari's is psychological, Vynález zkázy's is purely pictorial.

Loosely based on Verne's novel Facing the Flag (but also incorporating elements from a number of his other works), the film sets about recreating the look of the woodcut and steel-engraved images illustrating the published texts: here, etching lines are painted onto sets and superimposed over shots of the clashing sea to give them an authentic, hand-drawn look. Furthermore, the film combines all manner of tricks and effects - double exposures, painted animation, cut-out animation, stop-motion animation, puppets, miniatures, models, stylised matte-paintings, and who knows what else - with its live-action footage to create a seamless blend of startling, crisp, black-and-white material. The process was dubbed 'Mystimation', a name which seems perfectly apt for something which really does need to be seen to be believed.

Ultimately, however, the film's emphasis on pictorial splendour firmly pushes its narrative into second place. The story, which tells of a naive professor kidnapped by pirates and persuaded to help them create the ultimate weapon (while hiding in their secret volcanic lair, no less), remains somewhat languid throughout, never really coming to life to engage us as much as the visuals do. Coupled with some illogical plotting, it means that the film never quite becomes the masterpiece that it so clearly could have been.

However, the outright brilliance of the Mystimation process ensures that things never get too dull, while moments of poetry (such as one in which two fish swim into each other, their tails joining to form a butterfly) imbue the film with a charm which goes beyond that of its visual aesthetic. The film's faithful recreation of the feel and look of Victorian illustrations, meanwhile, gives the film a tactile texture that would be impossible to create in our current CGI-dominated era. In fact, the film harks back to the days of Méliès and shares with the early pioneer a clear sense of wide-eyed wonder for the possibilities of cinematic fantasy. Although essentially aimed at children, there are surely few adults who could fail to be won over by the sheer originality and uniqueness of the film's construction and the conviction with which it was made.

Shown at the BFI in 2010 to mark the centenary of Zeman's birth, let's hope that the occasion will lead to the widespread rediscovery that the film so clearly deserves.

-Alex Barrett